Dance Whisperer or Drillmaster: How Do You Approach Teaching Social Ballroom Dance Lessons?

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Circa 2009 Pam guides a student through the dance figures

As dance teachers we meet many awesome individuals from all walks of life. But, as with any business, there are some challenges along the way. Just like any customer service driven business, you never know what kind of personality you will engage with when meeting a new client.

One night a new couple, who appeared to be their twenties, attended my group class. They were invited by their friends who had taken a class with me the month before. They had no previous dance experience. As the lesson progressed I noticed that they were struggling a bit, but I gave them their space. During the break my mother, who helps me during class, came up to me and said, “I wouldn’t approach him if I were you, he doesn’t want any help”.  She was visibly upset. He apparently had spoken to her in a harsh tone when she approached him to offer assistance. He  told her he “couldn’t do it” and that he was there to dance with his girlfriend and didn’t want people standing around watching him.

After the break I kept an eye on the couple and as I made my rounds I made eye contact with his girlfriend who gestured for me to come over. I could tell by his body language that he wasn’t receptive to my visit. I kept eye contact with her and listened to what she had to say. Then I gently turned to face him, offering my hands, and asked him if he would dance with me. Surprisingly he took my hands. His face was beet red in frustration and I could feel the tension in his body. As we started the basic step, I began to speak to him in a very soft tone.  I told him to take a breath. As I continued to talk with him we kept dancing. Then he told me he “had” this step but he couldn’t get the ladies turn. So, without missing a beat, I said, “OK, then let’s turn”, (yes, I back-lead that one). And before he could think about it, we did it a second time, then a third time. I could feel the stress leaving his body and his face was beginning to relax. I didn’t give him the time to think it through; we just did the move over and over. Once I felt him relax I returned him to his partner.

At the end of the class he came up to me and he asked if the woman who approached him was my mother and I said yes. He said “I think I owe her an apology”.  I didn’t let on that she had said anything to me but I’m sure he knew. Then he said “do you think I should apologize?” and I said, “yes, I think that would be a good idea” and he walked over to her and offered her a sincere apology. As the young couple was leaving the dance floor, he said he had just worked a 14 hour day and apparently hadn’t eaten dinner. As the group was getting ready to leave, his girlfriend looked over her shoulder at me and assured me she would feed him before he came to the next lesson!

The next week on the dance floor was an entirely different story. As we danced through a mixer at the end of class, he danced more fluidly, with more confidence, and with a smile on his face! What a difference a week makes. We had crossed an important hurdle (and I surmise he had eaten dinner).

My point through all of this is: you can’t expect to have a positive result if you approach a nervous new student, full of anxiety, and slap them on the side of their head (yes, I’ve heard stories) to cajole them in to learning to dance. It’s hard enough to get men on the dance floor – so for goodness sake please don’t reprimand them right out of the gate. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when instructors need to be firm, yet professional, but in situations like this, being harsh won’t work.

One of my dance contacts in Houston, TX is Rebecca and she operates “The Dance Whisperer” studio. I love that name ~ it inspired this post. As social dance instructors, many of us are “dance whisperers” every time we teach a class. Teaching social dance requires a lot of patience. My students are not out to compete, they are out to have fun and socialize. I have to earn their trust, be firm when I need to be firm, correct when I need to correct, be their cheerleader, and encourage them during their dance journey.

So, are you a Dance Whisperer or a Drillmaster? Maybe if we hone our “whispering” skills we’ll fill our community ballroom dance floors!

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